Orpheus awoke in the poem of disguises


Perhaps individuals are real and deserve our attention; perhaps they are not. Perhaps each of us has an individual self, an inner life, partly mysterious, partly explicable, partly traceable to biographical fact, and partly evident in the sometimes songlike, sometimes speech-like works called lyric poems. But what if such selves are a bourgeois illusion, an outmoded epiphenomenon, produced by ideas in which we should no longer believe? So much of what seems like personal experience arises from systems far larger (the English language, the global economy) or smaller (a cluster of neurons) than persons can be; so much of what seems like artistic expression may also be traced to systems of convention. Perhaps poets—whose art form, more than others, appears tied to the history of individualism—should find ways to deny, or avoid, the hoary pretense that my words, my emotions, arise from causes within me, uniquely mine. I have just drawn a simplistic and binary picture, one that philosophers, cognitive scientists, and literary thinkers have for decades tried to improve. Those efforts have inspired, and found analogies in, much of the best poetry of the last 30 years. To the questions, linked arm in arm, “Should we believe that we have genuine, unique, consequential, inward selves? Do you have one? Do your poems express it? Do they participate in the tradition called ‘lyric’?” poets from Ashbery to Armantrout, from Jorie Graham to Juan Felipe Herrera, have given the answer, “it’s complicated.” Young poets still pursue intricately ambivalent answers. But poets can also answer “yes” or “no.” Two of this year’s best books by youngish poets illustrate the powers both answers still have.

more from Stephen Burt at Boston Review here.